Dreadlocks, Turbans, and Rollercoaster Racism

Living in Brooklyn, New York City as a turban-wearing Sikh, I attract plenty of negative attention from random strangers as well as the cops, which I’ve written about at length.  Fortunately, I also get some love and respect from time to time as I walk or ride my bike in my neighborhood in central Brooklyn — especially from Rastafarian men who don uncut dreadlocks, often wrapped up not so differently than the gol pagh I wear, albeit usually much taller.

I don’t mean to make broad generalizations about a whole community, but it is worth mentioning that nearly every time I cross paths with a man who appears to be Rastafarian, without fail I get a shout out.  “Respect, brother,”  or “Blessings, brother,” usually accompanied by a hand or fist on his heart.  Living in a neighborhood with a large Caribbean population, I encounter this regularly (and reciprocate), which is a breath of fresh air in my day-to-day life, which involves no shortage of street harassment, dirty looks, and sometimes worse.  I’m grateful for this genuine, simple act of human connection and solidarity.

I’ve talked to friends about this phenomenon as well as my brother who has had similar interactions with Rastafarians in Atlanta, GA where he lives.  The consensus is that the connection might stem from a recognition of a mutual prioritizing of our spirituality, and in particular, our shared spiritual connection to our hair.  Indeed, Rastafarians believe in keeping hair in its natural state, and many wrap up and cover their dreadlocks.  Without overstating any similarities between two very different spiritual traditions, our shared commitment to keeping our hair (not to mention a shared commitment in fighting for justice) is striking.

Our respective commitments to our hair have been similarly met with discrimination— discrimination that threatens our right to practice our religions or express our identities freely, based on  racist notions of what a “professional” hairstyle is.

Earlier today I received a Change.org petition today about a Black college student named MarKeese Warner who is being denied a summer job at Six Flags because of her dreadlocks.  While she is not Rastafarian, her locks are nevertheless an important part of her identity.  She states:

Locks are predominantly worn by African-American, Caribbean and African people as an expression of how our hair grows naturally. My hair is important to me and part of who I am. I’ve had locks for about five years. Being disqualified as a potential employee because of my hair made me feel defeated; as my hair is representation of my personal growth through the years. It hurts to hear major employers like Six Flags call my natural hair and texture “extreme.” Unfortunately, throughout history, many people have demonized locks.

Sounds familiar?  Not long ago, young Sikh trumpet player Sukhbir Channa was told by Disney that he could not work there as a musician because his turban did not conform to the “Disney Look.”

Not surprisingly, hijabs don’t make the cut for the Disney Look either.  In 2010, 26-year-old Imane Boudlal sued Disneyland for not allowing her to work as a hostess at Disneyland’s Grand Californian Hotel because of her hijab.  “Disney…advised Boudlal that if she refused to remove her hijab, she could either work a back-of-the-house position where any customers would not see her, or else go home,” said her union spokesperson.

No dreadlocks at Six Flags, no turbans or hijabs at Disneyland (or Rye Playland).  These massive institutions representing all things fun and adventurous are sending quite the disempowering message to Black, Sikh and Muslim youth.  And of course, they represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination we face based on our articles of faith or culture.  (For example, there is Kendall Gibson who has spent over a decade in solitary confinement because his refusal to cut his dreadlocks goes against prison grooming policies.  His locks may apparently present a threat to himself or others.  I’ve heard that same line before regarding my turban.)

We all have much work to do to organize our communities to challenge bigotry and discrimination at all levels, even on rollercoasters.  Summer job-seeking MarKeese Warner is calling for support in the form of signing her petition and spreading the word about Six Flags’ blatant discrimination.  Much respect and many blessings to MarKeese for not backing down to Six Flags’ rollercoaster racism.  I hope her fight inspires many others like her — dreadlocked, turbaned, or hijabed — to challenge institutional bigotry.



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17 Responses to “Dreadlocks, Turbans, and Rollercoaster Racism”

  1. picture says:

    Great message and peacefully delivered. But, does discrimination from those you see as your enemy or opposition inhere as part of your daily life? Meaning it seems like most of your interactions are in part determined or made sense of by whether you or a group you identify with are the victim of oppression by a given entity you describe as weilding some kind of unjust power. It seems like you fit almost every contribution here into that frame, in fact most interactions you describe fit this frame. Ever wonder if that’s an option and not an obligation for people to share as a way of looking at the world? Or do you think with enough to education most people would see the world as you do?

  2. brooklynwala says:

    it is a way of looking at the world, but i don't see systemic oppression is particularly subjective, if that's what you're asking. power relations are very real, and our gurus set out to shift oppressive power relations hundreds of years ago. we strive to walk in their footsteps today. i think it is ultimately in everyone's interest (even people who benefit from oppression, be it racism, sexism, etc) to recognize how oppression plays out in our society and in our daily lives and challenge it. organize within our own communities and across differences and in the process come up with much more equitable, cooperative and just ways of human relations. and in doing so, we get closer to Waheguru…

  3. picture says:

    Not sure what you consider systems of power is more akin to analysis in the western tradition particularly since the 1800s. The system of gurubani as relates to justice and our dharam toward right behavior is not like for like with the analysis of systems of power from the western tradition. It is not clear to me that what was set out to do in gurubani was to shift opppressive power relations. That seems an after the fact reading from the lens of someone thinking from within the western historical and philosophical viewpoint with significant assumption that the nature of power, power systems and individual and group behavior are shared like for like in the western tradition and in gurubanu. I would say gurubani is going for something more profound and more substantial. An area where academic study would be helpful

  4. picture says:

    Eg the earlier passage regarding seeking the so called lowest of the low. To read that as a simple call for solidarity with groups oppressed by a materalist power structure operating on the basis of systems of economic social political power…..is to miss alot and turn gurubani into a call for political action as we have seen countless others do since and before thomas paine. Gurubani becomes if you will forgive the analogy another version of the same kind of work as Common Sense or Das Kapital or work by Foucault or Derrida

  5. Blighty Singh says:

    I can identify with what Brooklynwala says about similarities between Sikhs and Rastafarians but…..I think its important to note that we're not really talking about 'mainstream' rastafarians here. Specifically, the similarity is with the ultra-orthodox Bobo Shanti dreads. Often, on my commute to and from work each day in London, I see, in the distance, what I think are Amritdhari Sikhs with blue dumallas walking my way. It is only when we are at touching distant that I realise that these 'Sikhs' are in fact bobo shanti rastas. I've conversed with one or two in my time. Visually – externally, yes, they have the identical appearance of a Sikh, in that they wrap their unshorn hair not in a hat but a turban. But in religious terms, their beliefs and practices are almost identical to the orthodox Jewish / Islamic tradition….particularly in regards to the duties and limits placed on women.
    Question is then……While sitting on a subway train….do I have more in common with the fellow passenger bobo shanti dread that looks like me on the outside or the bald headed Bhuddist that shares my faith's sexual equality on the inside ?

  6. picture says:

    Also, the invitation to fellow-feeling within Gurubani is much different than the use of the concept of solidarity as used on this blog. The idea that we share a basic divinity with all life because of the nature of the divine is one of the knowledg/feelings elicited from that portion of bani. When we share that connection with all life we see that being in the company of the so called lowest acts to bring us in touch with this profound knowledge. Reading gurubani the idea that the gurus set about to show this connection is more in tune than that they set about to change the political economy of their time or place. This is the issue with the blog. There is a political agenda broadly and easily understood as political left in rhetoric, method and the making of meaning of common issues of the day. Our guru has shown us how to have “solidarity” with the ant at our feet, and be filled with love at the meeting. This is much more than solidarity. Solidarity is child’s play in comparison.

  7. Alejandro says:

    Beautifully written. Thanks, Sonny.

  8. DeepH says:

    When I lived in Toronto and walked around in the Kensington Market, I used to come across a few Rasta's and they would always give me respect as well.

    Great article.

  9. Brown Wraith says:

    Thanks for this, Sonny. Really great to read this kind of thinking.

  10. Mrs. Ambassidor says:

    Developing a Hip Rock Reggae Studies Curriculum
    By Mrs. Darlene Hosea King/Mrs. Reggae Ambassador

    The supposition of using Reggae as a tool for teaching may come as a surprise to many , a shock to some, and as long overdue concept to others. Much of what is seen in the media talked about on campuses, and expressed in many communities is a stigmatized vision of Reggae culture. Reggae much like jazz for many years has had a negative connotation associated with it. The scene of knotty dreadlocks, marijuana and violence are etched in many peoples minds when they think of Reggae. They are unable to see the capitalistic hand that created these images for money and the stigma for confusion. Many of the people who work in the entertainment and beauty industry are following a script given to them by those who worked in the industry a century ago. The same negative images of African descendants were portrayed by D.W. Griffith in his “Birth of a Nation” and reinforced the stereotypes of African descendants as lazy, ignorant, no-account, silly degenerates who are oversexed, and violent. Any image that defies that stereotype is seen as not accurate and more importantly will not make money for any product through exploitation.
    There is however a small segment of Reggae culture who have used Reggae music as a form of education and empowerment (ie. Bob Nesta Marley). Reggae is one of the many elements that came out of the Africa to American experience. Reggae like blues, jazz, gospel and many other expressions created an identity for a generation of Africans who sought to be free from racial economic and political oppression. The origins of Reggae most certainly stretch back to Africa. The amalgamation of the many elements that make up this are form came together in Jamaica around the 1940s the music was used as a form of social political change and spiritual enlightenment. Reggae evolution into an art form for social change had its roots at this time with Afrika Bamssaata from the Zulu Nation. This evolved into consciousness of Reggae in the 1980s with Isreal Vibrations, Waling Souls, the Gladiators and others that epitomized the use of Reggae as a tool for education and awareness as in the song by Twinkle Bothers entitled “Since I Throw My Comb Away”.
    The Rastafarian Movement
    Since its founding in the 1930s, the Rastafarian movement has grown to the point where it has become a major cultural and political force in Jamaica. During its existence, the movement has challenged Jamaica's neo-colonialist society's attempts to keep whites at the top and blacks at the bottom of the socio-economic structure.
    Rastafarians have been praised for their continual resistance to and confrontation with oppression, racism, and the exploitation of the poor and underprivileged (Campbell).
    Marley's use of powerful metaphors assisted in expressing and popularizing Rastafarian ideas. His utilization of religious and social metaphors established a dichotomy between good and evil, provided strategies for action, and offered a solution for peoples' problems by advancing the concept of repatriation. The ambiguous nature of the metaphors and the high level of identification Marley created with his audience made the songs effective as protest music. (Part 1)

  11. Peter Hubble says:

    You are absolutely right about the ways the human beings from the different communities amongst the rest who are of a same are treated. From the time that I have told my sister about the superior essay service she has started to use it because of its long list of advantages. I second you bro in standing up with you against the discrimination against any particular race.

  12. Alexandria says:

    Its excellent as your other articles : D, regards for posting .